Editorial: 'Although he was a Republican,' Nunn put Kentucky first

February 01, 2004

It's hard to imagine Kentucky without Louie Nunn.

The former governor, who died Thursday night at his Woodford County home, had been a leading political figure in the state for 50 years.

An underdog from the beginning in a Democrat-dominated state, the Kentucky Encyclopedia notes that Nunn was first elected to office in 1953 as the county judge of Barren County, "although he was a Republican."

And that phrase from the Encyclopedia pretty much sums up the career of the colorful, combative and, ultimately, effective leader who had the distinction of being the only Republican governor of the second half of the 20th Century.


"Although he was a Republican" in a state full of Democrats, Nunn was an extraordinarily influential leader.

During his term as governor from 1967 to 1971, Nunn proposed and won legislative approval for an increase the sales tax from 3 cents to 5 cents to fund teacher raises and improvements at state universities, reformed the state's mental health system, revamped its juvenile justice system and brought the University of Louisville into the state university system despite the opposition of the Democrat-controlled legislature.

Like Gov. Edward T. "Ned" Breathitt, who preceded him in office and died in November, Nunn exerted as much or more influence on the state out of office as he did in. He was appointed to head the boards of trustees at both Morehead State and Kentucky State universities in the 1980s when those universities were in crisis, and he brought in political-nemisis-turned-friend Breathitt to help him in those jobs.

Nunn paid a high price for his decision as governor to raise the sales tax after making a campaign promise not to raise taxes, and "Nunn's Nickel" was a factor in his losses in a subsequent run for governor against John Y. Brown and a run for the U.S. Senate against Walter "Dee" Huddleston.

Several years ago, Nunn urged Republican legislators to support a tax increase during the administration of Democratic Gov. Paul Patton because he feared that after Patton left office, a Republican governor might, again, be forced to raise taxes to cover another budget deficit.

But despite his losses at a time when the Democrats were at their peak in the state, Nunn managed to keep the state's Republican Party alive and in the limelight. He was a fearless leader who was intensely partisan, and a fierce campaigner, but set partisanship aside when he saw a job that needed to be done.

"Although he was a Republican," he was a Kentuckian first and foremost.

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